Road Allowance Communities and other post-1885 Housing Challenges

After the 1885 resistance, the Métis were forced to leave their homes after the government would not grant them deeds to the lands that they had for so long inhabited.(1) Conditions for the Métis during this time were less than favorable; economic tensions and racial biases compounded to produce increasing levels of poverty and prejudice. The Métis relied heavily on seasonal work due to social inequality and forbidden access to education.(2) In addition, low incomes due to lack of more favorable employment opportunities meant that there was shortage of available funds to properly maintain let alone to make improvements on their homes.

Fearing the persecution and violence they would encounter if they stayed in the Red River region, the Métis were forced to leave their old settlements. While some Métis retained their lands due to the fact that they had become established farmers, others chose to migrate away from the area. This allowed for new settlers to claim the land so reluctantly relinquished by their previous residents. Following the rebellion, distinct groups of Métis emerged; some deciding to travel north away from persecution while others chose to remain within lands designated for road allowance. (3)

Road allowances are lands surveyed and reserved by the government of Canada for the purpose of future road development designated for public use. For a time these parcels of land were inhabited by the western Métis, often located on the fringes of reservations and settlements.(4) (See Figure 1) This caused significant tension between the landowners who lived near these areas. These communities were unique to the region of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. (5) Landless and lawless, the Métis became removed from the influence and authority of the government. Living within road allowances had several consequences which affected the Métis with varying socio-economic complexity. Once new communities had been established, rates for the municipal funding of schools was being provided by landowners. Since the Métis could not own land, they were unable to contribute into the designated municipal rates. This meant that their children were not allowed to attend as a result. (6) Barred from receiving a formal education, the Métis had become further disenfranchised and profiled.

Road Allowance Home, High Bluff Manitoba

Figure 1: Rita Cullen (née Vivier, b.1936) and her siblings at their road allowance house near High Bluff, Manitoba. (Image Source)

Although historically the Métis were not known to be sedentary individuals, many wanted to retain their connection with their previous settlement sites. Many individuals along with their families would periodically return to their old homes even in the event that they had been destroyed. (7) Often homes were burned to the ground only to leave the remains of an old stone foundation or chimney. (8) These homes were not only eliminated to make room for new settlers acquiring their land but also to promote fear and violence in order to urge the Métis never to return.Therefore, migrating to road allowance parcels could not and would not sever their physical or symbolic ties to the places they had originally settled.

The government never set aside reserve land for the Métis to inhabit. This made it extremely difficult for them to retain their identity, as well as preserve their established communities. As stated by Patrick Douaud in Canadian Métis Identity: A Pattern of Evolution; “[the Métis] were definitely outside the general path of progress, yet they were not marginal enough to be put aside under special status…” (9) The Métis did not receive status under the Indian Act, and although some individuals were granted scrip to be redeemed for land or money, these were in fact designed with the intention to eliminate their Aboriginal title. (10) (See Figure 2,3)

E11-p07-lg005005-e010836018-v8

Figure 2: Scrip coupon for 160 acres, dated 1900, signed 1901 (Image Source)

Figure 3: Cancelled Land Scrip for 20 dollars, issued May 1st, 1876, RG 15, Vol. 1387, Note 3 (Image Source)

The scrip program was implemented to allow the government to free up land allotments to the south of the prairie provinces far from where most Métis communities were located. (11) The application process required the scrip to be redeemed where the lands were often located hundreds of miles away. (12) Illiteracy, economic hardship and bureaucracy affected the Métis’s ability to apply and redeem scrip, often given little choice in having to sell the lands at a fraction of the price. Land ownership was therefore a near impossible venture. This particular type of social exclusion led to further disenfranchisement among the Métis resulting in a cycle of poverty and racism.

The collapse of the fur-trade left meant that many Métis could no longer rely on their previous modes of employment as provisioners, traders and guides. A lack of formal education restricted the possibility for other viable employment opportunities. Unable to ameliorate their employment circumstances by obtaining a higher level of education, their low incomes made land purchase an almost definite unattainable measure. Their inability to own or purchase land meant that they could not pay into the public rates for schooling, therefore their children were prohibited to attend. (13) This ongoing cycle of marginalization would continue to affect the Métis and cause rippling effects across generations for years to come. Furthermore it was only nearing the mid twentieth century until the government chose to intervene.

In 1938, Alberta passed the Betterment Act which provided land settlements in response to historical claims made by the Métis with the hope to distribute relief and increase the standard of living. (14) Homes built by the ‘road allowance Métis’ during this time were generally built from found or recycled material such as scrap lumber. (15)(16) A lack of physical remains from recent archaeological sites could indicate that some families salvaged, transported and re-purposed their building materials from previously abandoned settlements. Ultimately, the quality of these self-built units were usually quite low and as a result did not allow for conditions to improve within Métis communities.(17)

Blarney Castle

Figure 4:  New Northwest Exploration Expedition tent set up beside “Blarney Castle”, a log cabin near Ile a la Crosse, SK, September/October 1908. From the Frank J.P. Crean fonds. (Image Source)

Usually poorly insulated, these tar paper shacks were built throughout the southern regions of the prairies. (18) This building practice was however ill-suited for the more northern fringes. The Métis living near the parklands and northern regions of the praires chose instead to build more traditional log homes whenever possible. The log home building practice continued well into the 1960’s, with a third of them consisting of one room structures. (19) For many families, overcrowding  became a large concern, both within the home and on the land. (20) This put a considerable amount of stain on the home which contributed to higher deterioration rates.(21) Geographic isolation and climatic differences were also a concern when considering the home’s’ level of durability. (22) Moreover, the high cost of material transportation in more remote communities made it also increasingly difficult to provide adequate maintenance.(23)

Farmhouse Barns 1.PNG

Figure 5: Old Farmhouse, Batoche, photo taken in the 2000’s. Dennis and Jean Fisher Collection  (Image Source)

Although many elements have been identified as key issues regarding poor housing quality and high rates of deterioration among Métis communities, other reports on housing assistance in Saskatchewan highlight low income as the most significant correlate. (24)(25) Low incomes could have persuaded families to limit their funds for housing repairs; instead most likely focusing their salaries on what they perceived to be more important expenses. In addition, it is also indicated that the level of income spent on repair expenditures was not affected by the homes increasing physical state of decline. (27) Eventually government housing programs started to emerge in response to the already rapidly deteriorating conditions within the region.

Unidentified Log Buildings, Northwestern Saskatchewan (1908-1909)

Figure 6:  Log buildings and a wagon in northwestern Saskatchewan, 1908-1909. From the Frank J.P. Crean fonds. (Image Source)

Subsidized housing programs for Métis communities in northern Saskatchewan were implemented as early as 1960. (28) However, it is argued that they did not contribute to make significant positive changes until the mid 60’s to mid 70’s. (29) Earlier strategies at ameliorating the quality of housing for the Métis were generally unsuccessful due to the fact that they not designed with long term objectives in mind. (30)  Later the province sought to provide subsidies for mortgages, thereby increasing the affordability for homes in the region. (31) The Métis heavily relied on these programs, not only due to economic difficulty but also due to a lack of knowledge regarding general maintenance practices. Along with the Saskatchewan Métis Housing Program, the Manitoba Remote Housing Program developed a self help approach incorporating lessons in home management and life skills development. (32) Construction participation also became an important factor not only as means of employment but to also develop crucial skills related to future home maintenance. (33) Overall, it is documented that these housing programs have demonstrated dramatic positive impacts throughout the late twentieth century on the living conditions of the Métis (34).

Unidentified Log Building, Northern Saskatchewan (1908-1909)

Figure 7:  Unidentified log building, northwestern Saskatchewan, 1908-1909. From the Frank J.P. Crean fonds. (Image Source)

For some communities the Métis housing situation has evolved from a state of dispossession to one of adaptation and resiliency. Individuals once pushed to the fringes of a newly emerging society were able to safeguard aspects of their culture. For others, political, economic and social processes have dramatically impacted their way of life; causing rippling effects from one generation to another. Overcrowding and substandard accommodations still continue to be a reality for both rural and urban living Métis. These are but some of the many difficulties presently encountered along with the growing shortage of affordable rental housing and increase in poverty. Today, housing programs for both First Nation and Métis communities still exist throughout Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

[1] Rivard, Ron & Associates. 2000. One Thousand Voices, Métis Homelessness Project-2000. Report Prepared for: The Metis Urban Councils of Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina, p.7.

[2] Beatch, W.T., 1995. Metis and reserve housing of Northern Saskatchewan a comparison of quality 1981-1991, p.10.

[3] Rivard, Ron & Associates. 2000. One Thousand Voices, Métis Homelessness Project-2000. Report Prepared for: The Metis Urban Councils of Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina. p.7.

[4] Douaud, P.C., 1983. Canadian Metis identity: A pattern of evolution. Anthropos, p.75.

[5] St-Onge, Nicole., Podruchny, Carolyn., Macdougall, Brenda. 2012. Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p. xiv.

[6] Rivard, Ron & Associates. 2000. One Thousand Voices, Métis Homelessness Project-2000. Report Prepared for: The Metis Urban Councils of Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina, p.8.

[7] St-Onge, Nicole., Podruchny, Carolyn., Macdougall, Brenda. 2012. Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p. xiv.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Douaud, P.C., 1983. Canadian Metis identity: A pattern of evolution. Anthropos, p.75.

[10] Flanagan, Thomas. 1983. A Case Against Metis Aboriginal Rights. Canadian Public Policy / Analyse de Politiques, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), p.319. 

[11] Joseph, Bob. The Scrip – What is this and how did it affect Métis History. Retreived from: http://www.ictinc.ca/blog/the-scrip-how-did-the-scrip-policy-affect-metis-history

[12] Augustus, Camie. Métis Scrip. Retreived from: http://scaa.sk.ca/ourlegacy/exhibit_scrip

[13] Rivard, Ron & Associates. 2000. One Thousand Voices, Métis Homelessness Project-2000. Report Prepared for: The Metis Urban Councils of Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina, p.8.

[14] Byrne, Nicole C. O. 2013. “No other weapon except organization”: The Métis Association of Alberta and the 1938 Metis Population Betterment Act. Journal of the Canadian Historical Association / Revue de la Société historique du Canada, vol. 24, n° 2, 2013, p.313. 

[15] Paquin, Todd., Young, Patrick. 2003. Traditional Métis Housing and Shelter. Published. May 30, 2003, p.7.

[16] Rivard, Ron & Associates. 2000. One Thousand Voices, Métis Homelessness Project-2000. Report Prepared for: The Metis Urban Councils of Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina, p.7.

[17] Bone, R.M. and Green, M.B., 1983. Housing assistance and maintenance for the Metis in northern Saskatchewan. Canadian Public Policy/Analyse De Politiques, p.481.

[18] Paquin, Todd., Young, Patrick. 2003. Traditional Métis Housing and Shelter. Published. May 30, 2003, p. 7.

[19] Ibid, p.7.

[20] Rivard, Ron & Associates. 2000. One Thousand Voices, Métis Homelessness Project-2000. Report Prepared for: The Metis Urban Councils of Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina, p. 10.

[21]Beatch, W.T., 1995. Metis and reserve housing of Northern Saskatchewan a comparison of quality 1981-1991, p.43.

[22] Ibid, p.11.

[23] Ibid, p.37.

[24] Ibid. p.3, p.11.

[25] Bone, R.M. and Green, M.B., 1983. Housing assistance and maintenance for the metis in northern Saskatchewan. Canadian Public Policy/Analyse De Politiques, p.480.

[26] Bone, R.M. and Green, M.B., 1983. Housing assistance and maintenance for the Metis in northern Saskatchewan. Canadian Public Policy/Analyse De Politiques, p. 481-482.

[27] Chislett, Katherine., Green, Milford, B., Bone, Robert, M. 1987. Housing mismatch for Metis in Northern Saskatchewan. The Canadian Geographer / Le Geographe canadien 31, no 4 (1987), p. 342.

[28] Beatch, W.T., 1995. Metis and reserve housing of Northern Saskatchewan a comparison of quality 1981-1991. P. 34

[29] Ibid. P.33

[30] Bone, R.M. and Green, M.B. 1983. Housing assistance and maintenance for the Metis in northern saskatchewan. Canadian Public Policy/Analyse De Politiques, p.478.

[31] Beatch, W.T., 1995. Metis and reserve housing of Northern Saskatchewan a comparison of quality 1981-1991, p.35.

[32] Ibid. P. 36

[33] Ibid. P. 37

 

 

 

 

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